Toxic Substances Control Act - Plain and Simple

So, I was at the White House last week...

I think that has to be one of those lines that if you ever have the opportunity to actually write it, you kind of have to. But I digress.

I'd love to say I was at the White House for something fun or sexy, like riffling through Michelle Obama's closet or to prognosticate the Western Conference playoffs outcome with our president, but what brought me there with my fellow members of the Natural Resources Defense Council Leadership Group was more sobering and quite honestly more important than most anything facing this country aside from War and Recession.

It's the fact that industrial chemicals in this country continue to be manufactured and distributed around here and around the world with virtually no government regulation.

Pharmaceuticals are regulated. Pesticides are, as well as food, save the occasional salmonella outbreak. But chemicals and their witch's brew of ingredients continue to augment American Industry without anyone quite knowing their makeup and possible toxicity. And that needs to change.

In 1976 the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed, sending the EPA on a 30 year plus odyssey chasing down the chemical industry in a fruitless quest for responsibility. Under TSCA, the burden of proof lies on the agency to regulate the chemical industry -- and prove that a chemical is unsafe before its use can be restricted -- as opposed to relying on the companies to disclose the makeup of the chemicals they are producing, and whether or not said ingredients are carcinogenic, endocrine disruptors, or a danger to our neurological systems. Basically TSCA has served as a gimme to big industry, a way to make it seem like the chemical industry is under supervision, when really it runs amuck. 62,000 chemicals were already in commerce when TSCA was passed; these were grandfathered in and therefore most were never required to go under testing by the EPA to determine their possible detrimental effects on human health or the environment. Under existing law, those chemicals are presumed to be safe, though for most there is insufficient evidence to prove it, and for some there is strong evidence to suggest that they are not. Since then, over 22,000 have been manufactured, and yet the EPA must first prove that any and all of these thousands of chemicals may pose an unreasonable risk to health and the environment before said chemical is to be fully investigated. And until disaster strikes, as evidenced by the asbestos related deaths that have racked up, these chemicals continue to be manufactured and served up to public consumption blindly, and seemingly without any consideration to the future health and well being of Americans and people around the world.

The worst of it: the catch 22. Should the chemical companies find in their studies that their chemical is a carcinogen, is affecting reproductive organs, embeds in lung tissue, then it is incumbent upon them to disclose this information to the EPA. But since the EPA doesn't have the right to require testing on all chemicals, it behooves the chemical industry not to do further testing because if they find out these chemicals are toxic, well then, they might have to shut down production of that chemical, and well, that could cost them a lot of money. So they continue to produce many of them without any regard to health and the environment. And to add insult to injury, once the EPA has determined that a chemical could be hazardous to one's health, the burden of proof is on the EPA to convince a court that the chemical is unsafe, rather then the manufacturer being required to prove that the chemical is safe. Talk about a modern day David versus Goliath. Because EPA's authority is so limited under the current law, there are dozens if not hundreds of chemicals that are used broadly in consumer products, to which the public is routinely exposed, and for which growing scientific evidence shows potentially serious health effects.

Take the recent report by the National Toxicology Program on the dangers of Bisphenol A. BPA is just one chemical used to make plastic baby bottles, and in the lining of food, beverage and infant formula containers. Research shows that children are exposed to BPA by drinking from polycarbonate bottles and consuming food from containers made using BPA. And the Center for Disease Control's bio-monitoring program has found that the majority of Americans carry residues of BPA in their bodies. Low-levels of Bisphenol A exposure have been associated with cancer of reproductive organs, diabetes, heart disease, abnormal brain development, and abnormalities in fat metabolism in animal studies. And as recently as yesterday, a Harvard University study proved decisively that BPA is leaching from the plastic bottles into the water we drink when it published a report detailing how those who drank from BPA bottles over the course of a week produced urine with twice the amount of BPA in their bodies as those who drank from steel containers.

Another group of industrial chemicals that are found in many consumer products are phthalates. Their use has been widespread in toys, child-care products, as well as personal care products, air fresheners, vinyl flooring and as a food additive. Phthalates are known to cause reproductive harm including birth defects of boys' genitals, abnormal sperm, testicular cancer and alterations in sex hormone levels.

But it isn't just odd-sounding chemicals that few people have heard of that EPA has difficulty regulating under the current law. Old classic toxic chemicals like lead, asbestos, mercury, and formaldehyde, continue to be widely used due to a lack of authority for EPA to reduce or eliminate human exposures where possible to do so.

Hhmm. And infertility rates, especially amongst younger women, continue to rise...

Did I mention that the European Union recently passed legislation requiring all chemical companies to register their products and fully disclose all ingredients with requisite proper safety testing? This should make commerce with Europe interesting when it comes time to sell our wares and they are rejected based on lack of full disclosure.

Sometime soon following this Memorial Day, legislation will be introduced in Congress that would reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The reform bill, known as the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act would transform TSCA into an effective law for regulating and protecting the public from unsafe chemicals (while encouraging the development of safer alternatives). Senator Frank Lautenberg is championing this effort in the U.S. Senate, while Rep. Bobby Rush is the leader of the reform effort in the House of Representatives. I call on all of those in power to make change in Washington DC and all of us who fuel these people in power to unite to make this world safer for all of us, and to make this planet safer for itself. How can this be seen as a partisan issue when Republicans' children and grandchildren are diagnosed with asthma at the same staggering rates as those of the Democrats? Last I checked, people from all parties are partaking of the same mercury laden fish that are plucked out of streams, rivers, and oceans laden with the very same contaminants that the EPA is unable to properly regulate.

Am I crazy or is this plain and simple?

Don't answer that.

Note: My thanks to Daniel Rosenberg for his help with this article.